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News / Business / Clark County Business

Clark Public Utilities rates will jump 14.5 percent as of March 1

By Sarah Wolf, Columbian staff writer
Published: January 23, 2024, 2:59pm

Clark Public Utility commissioners passed an overall 14.5 percent rate increase for power customers in a 2-1 vote Tuesday morning.

The utility has not raised electricity rates since 2011.

“The staff have done a really excellent job over the last 12 years of maintaining rates constantly,” board President Jim Malinowksi said during the meeting. “Events have overtaken us.”

Residential power rates have two parts — a basic monthly charge and a charge billed per kilowatt-hour.

All three of the commissioners supported a 14.5 percent overall increase, the highest of the four options presented at the meeting.

To get Help

Customers struggling to pay energy bills are encouraged to call 360-992-3000 to speak with a customer service representative about Clark Public Utility’s financial assistance energy conservation programs and flexible payment arrangements.

However, Commissioner Jane Van Dyke preferred an option that would have raised residential basic charges to $17 rather than $19. The $19 option was preferred by commissioners Malinowski and Nancy Barnes.

The rate increase will go into effect March 1 and will apply to residential, industrial, lighting and general service customers.

Residents using 1,200  kilowatt-hours in a month — the residential average across a year, according to the utility — will see their electric service bills go up to $124.48 from $109.92, excluding pass-through taxes.

When a cost-of-service analysis was initially presented to the commissioners earlier in the month, proposed rate increases were lower. The commissioners were expecting to put money into reserve funds.

However, last week’s ice storm was so expensive that higher rate increase options were added. Even the highest rate increase isn’t expected to build up reserves — at least this year — as commissioners previously hoped.

Commissioners voted in December to use some reserve funds to balance the budget at the end of last year. The cost-of-service analysis showed that the remaining reserve funds were lower than even the lowest recommended amount.

“It needs to be a long-term goal of ours to build reserves,” said Barnes, noting it can’t be done all at once.

“But as a business plan, I will propose that we find a way in the future to build reserves,” she said. “This is not a time to do without reserves.”

Barnes said she received several calls from residents and lawmakers questioning why the utility didn’t see the higher loads and more expensive wholesale power coming before now.

“My reply to them is, ‘We did not miss this,’ ” she said.

“It’s hard for me to see an end to the rate increases ahead and there’s very little room left for this amazing utility and its staff to work for the sake of our customers and keep rate increases down,” Barnes said.

She pointed to several legislative actions taken over the past 20 years, such as decarbonizing wholesale power and mandating utilities use more non-hydro renewable power.

Clark Public Utilities invested in wind energy, which Barnes said generated nearly no power during last week’s storm. She said lawmakers have continued adding regulations including limiting the use of the utility’s natural gas plant.

“The bottom line is that Olympia eliminated most baseload resources from the region without a plan to replace them,” said Barnes. “They moved ahead with decarbonization plans without time for technology —such as storage — to catch up or for new power sources to be developed.”

The commissioner said the utility’s ability to keep rates down was curtailed at the same time a growing scarcity of power is driving up rates on the West Coast.

Some members of the public spoke up at the hearing, including local environmental advocate Don Steinke, questioning the impact environmental regulations played in the need for the utility to raise rates.

“I don’t see that the Clean Energy Transformation Act and other programs have currently increased the price,” said Steinke, who ran for a board seat unsuccessfully in 2022. “It may in the future, but not so far.”

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While complimenting the utility staff, Steinke said he thought the need to raise rates came down to the growth in customers and a lack of conservation.

Jeff Powell, representing Camas-based nLIGHT, said the company is now looking at a $130,000 hit to its bottom line resulting from increased utility costs.

“It’s unfortunate that we have had this market situation that we didn’t anticipate,” said Malinowksi. “We’re as disappointed as you that we are having to go down this route. But I think it’s necessary for the financial security of the utility that we move forward with it.”

The utility previously said multiple factors contributed to the rate increase: extreme weather driving up demand in winter and summer; low water levels hindering hydroelectric generation; more money required for infrastructure and information systems; inflation and supply chain issues, as well as the state’s clean-energy requirements limiting the utility’s use of its natural gas-powered River Road plant.

Clark Public Utilities provides electricity to more than 230,000 customers in Clark County.